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Doll in the Snow: The Oldest Cold Case to be Solved in America

By Emily Duren

The moments leading up to the abduction of Maria Ridulph read like something out of a movie script. December 3, 1957 was the first day it had snowed that season in Sycamore, Illinois. After dinner, 7-year-old Maria asked to go outside and play with her friend, 8-year-old Kathy Sigman (now Chapman). They were playing a game where they tried to dodge the headlights of oncoming cars, when a man, who said he was 24, pulled up and asked them if they liked dolls, or wanted piggyback rides. He was blond with a high voice and big teeth. He called himself Johnny.In a town of only 7,000smaller than our student bodyKathy couldnt recall ever seeing him before.

Johnny gave Maria a piggyback ride, and then when he was done, she ran over to her house to get a doll, leaving Kathy and Johnny outside. He asked Kathy if she wanted to go for a walk, but she declined. Then he told her she was pretty. Which is creepy as hell, by the way. When Maria came back, Kathy went back to her house to get her mittens. She asked Maria to come with her, but she wouldnt. That was the last time Kathy ever saw Maria. When she came back, there was no sign of Maria or Johnny. Marias body wouldnt be found until almost five months later, 120 miles from Sycamore.

One suspect in Marias murder was 18-year-old John Tessier (later known as Jack McCullough), of Sycamore, Illinois. His alibi was that he was in Rockford, Illinois, approximately 40 miles away from Sycamore, enlisting in the Air Force, on the night of the murder. This was verified via FBI interviews with recruiting officers who remember seeing Tessier at the time he claimed to be there. By all accounts, it was a fairly impenetrable alibi. Tessier also said he made a collect call from a phone booth in Rockford, to the Tessier home in Sycamore, at 6:57 p.m., 15 minutes after when Maria was believed to have been abducted. Phone records show that the operator took a call from a man who gave his name as John Tassier.In spite of this, Tessier was given a lie detector test, and passed. A week after Marias abduction, Tessier was cleared as a suspect. And then the case went cold. For five decades.

Unfortunately for Tessier, 1957 wouldnt be the last time he heard the name Maria Ridulph. It also wouldnt be his last brush with tragedy. Or the law. After serving in the Air Force for 13 years, Tessier retired and became a police officer. He eventually settled in Washington state and had two children.

In 1982, Tessier took in a 15-year-old runaway named Michelle Weinman, and her friend. Weinman says he was nice enough at first, but then he started giving her goodnight kisses, which eventually escalated to massages. Then came the night he sexually assaulted her. Though Tessier still maintains he didnt do it, he was initially charged with statutory rape and eventually pled guilty to communication with a minor for immoral purposes. He also resigned from the police force. After the conviction, John Tessier changed his name to Jack McCullough, saying he wanted to honor his mother, Eileen, McCullough Cherry.

In 2005, McCulloughs 34-year-old daughter, Christine, was reported missing. She had last been seen in a motel with her boyfriend. Her body was eventually found in a drainage ditch of a Texas golf course. However, due to extreme decomposition, she wouldnt be identified until 2013. The case is being treated as a murder, and McCullough says he was in Washington at the time Christine went missing.

In 2012, one of McCulloughs half-sisters, Jeanne Tessier, also accused him of gang raping her in 1962. Every one of these columns has had an extremely bizarre plot twist, and for this case, its Jeanne Tessier. Tessier claims that McCullough used to molest her, as well as other girls in their neighborhood, but when she was 14, he took it to a new extreme. One night, she says, McCullough pulled up to their house in a Corvette and Tessier asked for a ride. He took her to a second location and raped her before three other young men she didnt know showed up, and McCullough said they could rape her, too only two of them did. Tessier couldnt describe them. Ultimately, McCullough was acquitted of the rape charge after the judge in his bench trial decided that 50 years had been too long and that Jeanne Tessier’s story could not be corroborated. Illinois does have a statute of limitations on rape, but when McCullough left Illinois to move to Washington, it prevented the statute from taking effect, thus making his arrest possible at any time This wasnt a big win for McCullough, though. Considering he also had a first degree murder charge hanging over his head. Yeah. After 54 years, Jack McCullough was arrested for a murder he had been cleared of.

To fully understand how and why this happened, we need to back up a bit. So when McCulloughs mother was on her deathbed, his other half sister, Janet Tessier, claims that McCulloughs mother was like, Yo guys, guess what? Jack killed Maria. Bye. McCulloughs youngest sister, Mary Pat, claims she was also in the room to hear this confession, but the two testimonies conflicted. From 1994-2008, Janet Tessier tried to get police to take a second look at her brother as a possible suspect, but they wouldnt because there has never been any DNA to match McCullough, and because the mothers confession is completely inadmissible in court. I mean, really, you might as well call Casper the Friendly Ghost as a witness.

Regardless, police decided to show a photo lineup to Kathy Chapman to see if shed pick McCullough out. So, they took five photos out of the high school yearbook from Sycamore, but his picture was missing. Authorities then reached out to Jan Edwards, an ex-girlfriend of McCullough, to see if she could provide them with a photo of McCullough from around the time of the murder. The photo provided them with more than theyd hoped for. Not only did they get a great photo, but when they opened up the frame a train ticket fell out. It was for Dec. 2, 1957 and it hadnt been punched, meaning that McCullough hadnt gotten on the train to Rockford that night. They said even if he went to Rockford, he must have done so a different waythey suspected he drove himself. This means he could have killed Maria. Kathy Chapman was shown the photo lineup and identified McCullough, resulting in a charge of 1st degree murder. Ridulphs body was also exhumed not long after, and for the first time a cause of death was able to be determined: she was stabbed in the throat at least three times. Someone stabbed a 7-year-old. In the throat.

In September of 2012, McCullough went to trial for Ridulphs murder. In my opinion, their case was shoddy at best. They had:

Chapmans identification through the photo lineup: As I said previously, the other five photos were yearbook photos, with light colored backgrounds, the men in suits, looking off to the left. In McCulloughs photo, hes dressed slightly more casual, in front of a very dark background, looking straight into the camera. I saw the lineup, and I felt like he wanted to murder me. Its not necessarily that the photo by itself evokes feelings of fear, but it’s prejudicial when put next to the others. Which is exactly why this practice has since been outlawed in Illinois. Also, how strong do we think Chapmans memory is after 53 years? I know I just fought for eyewitness testimony in the Grim Sleeper column last week, so Im going to be the first one to call myself out. But hear me out. Theres a HUGE difference, in my opinion, between the memory from an 8-year-old, that spends 53 years decaying, than that of a grown woman who was viciously attacked by a man, was confronted by him again, and only had to keep the memory for half that time before going to trial.

Inconsistent inmate testimony: So, you wanna hear a joke? An inmate said that McCullough told him that he killed Maria Ridulph; he took her after giving her a piggyback ride, when Kathy Chapman went into her house to get her mittens. Then he changed his story and said McCullough told him he killed her by choking her with a wire, and this was used as part of the trial, even though we know that isnt how she was killed. A second inmate testified and said McCullough told him that hed simply slipped during the piggyback ride, and it was an accident.So, he says McCullough took her into his house and choked her. Then he too, a convicted home invader by the way, changed his story. He also went with the wire story.

The other childhood friend: There was another friend who testified that at some point before Marias murder, she had also been offered a piggyback ride by a man named Johnny,and was able to identify him as McCullough. Solid evidence, you guys. Solid evidence.

Jack McCullough was convicted of 1st degree murder and given a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 20 years.

But wait, theres more. I first heard about this case this past week because the States Attorney in Dekalb County, Illinois wanted Jack McCullough to be released from prison. He says theres no way that McCullough could have murdered Maria Ridulph, based on the fact of the phone call that came from Rockford that night, as well as the timeline given by the witnesses. McCullough had a hearing on Tuesday, March 29, and he hoped that hed be a free man at the end of the day, but that was not the case.

An Illinois judge declined on Friday to free the man convicted of murder in one of the nation’s oldest cold cases, even though the prosecution and defense agree Jack Daniel McCullough is ‘demonstrably innocent.Judge William Brady said the situation is so unusual he needs more guidance on what to do — and more time to review the facts and the law. He asked McCullough’s attorneys to clarify in writing how the law would apply to their client’s case and told them to return to court on April 15,” according to CNN.

So, Im sitting here once again, asking myself the same question I ask myself every week. Do I think Jack McCullough is innocent? I just dont know, but Im leaning toward yes. The only thing that makes me question his innocence is his past regarding sexual assault. However, when I started writing this column, I vowed to stay objective, and for me to do that in this case, I have to keep telling myself that the murder and the sexual assaults arent even connected. So objectively, yes, hes most likely innocent. Logistically, it makes sense that hes innocent. They have the proof that he was in Rockford, which is a smoking gun for the defense. As we know, you cant be in two places at once. Oh, how much easier life would be.

If McCullough is innocent, this is truly a travesty, and he should be released immediately. But alas, thats not how our laws work. This is a miscarriage of justice the size of which Ive only seen a handful of times before. That being said, I have massive respect for the Dekalb County SA for admitting the state made a mistake, and I hope that the SA’s office will wholeheartedly continue to pursue justice for Maria Ridulph.

Emily Duren can be reached at

2 Comments on Doll in the Snow: The Oldest Cold Case to be Solved in America

  1. In stories like this, I like to go back and read the original documents (FBI reports, trial transcripts, etc.) because so much gets misreported and misrepresented in newspaper stories (and even in the Lachman book.) The only positive evidence against McCullough was Kathy Chapman’s identification of him in the lineup. How was Kathy able to remember his face after 53 years? Here’s what she said at the trial:

    “The corner had a streetlight on it …”

    “Very dark, very dark, but streetlights on the corner of Archie and Center Cross.”

    “I observed Johnny … by standing in that streetlight.”

    But there is one problem. A picture of the street corner was introduced by the prosecution. You can see the utility pole all the way to the top. There is no streetlight. The nearest light was 50 yards away (at the corner of Center and Center Cross). After this incident, the City Council itself noted that that “[t]here is no street light at Center Cross and Archie Place”, calling it a “dark spot”, and debated having one installed, which it finally approved in January 1958. (Reports can be found in the Sycamore True Republican and the Daily Chronicle.)

    For some reason, people have strong opinions about McCullough’s character – either he’s a nice guy or a psychopath (that latter opinion coming from Julie Trevarthen, the assistant state prosecutor during the trial) – and that opinion colors their belief of his innocence or guilt. I have no opinion, so instead I look at facts. The train ticket that wasn’t punched was dated November 28, 1957 (good for 30 days) and was for the inbound trip Rockford to Chicago. It tells us nothing about how he returned from Chicago to Rockford on December 3. The revised timeline would only work if McCullough make the phone call from the outskirts of Rockford. The FBI report from Dec 9, 1957 gave the number of the phone in Rockford, but it was only this year that we learned where the phone was located – it was at the downtown Post Office, just where McCullough had told the FBI he made the call, 58 years ago. The prosecution’s case has crumbled into nothingness.

    Anyway, McCullough was freed, the charges were dismissed, Clay Campbell (the prosecutor who tried the case but lost his job in the next election) recently tried running again for his old job but lost in the primary, and finally, Charles Ridulph has just filed an amended petition to have a special prosecutor appointed (with evidence to be supplied by Julie Trevarthen). The story continues.


  2. very interesting but very sad case of a murder little girl. I to am questioning Jack McCullough if he really is innocent. I believe he didn’t kill this child, it’s impossible for him to be in two places at the same time. Kathy could of recognize Jack from her neighbourhood she might have seen him at one point and because she was only 8 years old now then and now she’s in her 60s she might have mistaken her memories of who Jack was. I read Footsteps in the Snow and what was pretty creepy was that Jack keeps on mentioning to his previously girlfriends about being a suspect in this little girl’s murder and when ever his own mother comes by to visit she also tells them about he was once a suspect in Maria’s murder, very odd.

    I think it must have been someone else who killed her, if you kill a young child you would do it again you just don’t kill a 7 year old child and decide not to do it again, who ever killed this little girl did it again to other young children of Maria’s age and Maria was not his first. As i have read there were other suspects, Henry William Redmond who was a child killer he kidnapped and murdered a 8 year old girl in 1951 (6 years before Maria’s kidnapping and murder) where he worked as a ferris wheel operator at a carnival, he later became a truck driver and people believed whoever kidnapped and killed Maria was a truck driver passing through the town, Archie pl and center cross street is a very busy road with many cars passing through the town from the main highway entering Sycamore. There was a child molester during 1957 or 1958 who kidnapped a 9 year old girl she was found sleeping in his car the next morning she was found and recuced back to her parents, he was a huge suspect in Maria’s murder and didn’t want to take a lie detector and got a lawer right away, Kathy also said she didn’t recognize him at a line up of the kidnapper (remember it was very dark outside on the evening of dec 3rd 1957).

    If Jack does get release i do hope they reopen Maria’s case, i find it very sad that her case will once be unsolved again and her family/siblings will have to go through all this pain not knowing who killed their baby sister. I think it’s horrible when people kill children, how can someone just kill a child, a 7 year old little girl!!!! her life cut short at 7. I believe the death penalty should be in place for people who do such evil to children and kill them.


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